Customer Reviews: The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
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on April 28, 2009
How do people get good at something? Wait a minute, that's the not the right question, how do people get great at something?

Well, frankly, there has been a significant amount of research on the matter of human performance and the development of skill/talent. Author, Daniel Coyle, has looked at the research and he also went on a road trip to what he calls "talent hotbeds", places where great talent has been produced out of proportion to their size and perceived stature; for example, a Russian tennis club, a music school in Dallas, a soccer field in Brazil, and others.

Coyle shares what he learned in this excellent book, "The Talent Code". The Talent Code covers three basic areas:

1) Deep practice. Practice is important to world-class performance. I guess everyone knew that already, huh? Well, sometimes, it doesn't hurt to remind of everyone of the obvious. What might be a little more helpful is the understanding of "how" to practice. What constitutes "deep practice"? This is the kind of practice that separates the great from the not-so-great.

The understanding of "deep practice" involves an understanding of a substance called "myelin". Myelin is the insulation that wraps around nerve fibers. According to Coyle, myelin turns out to be a very big deal in the development of skill. Myelin is increased through deep practice and, in turn, increased myelin affects the signal strength, speed and accuracy of the electric signals traveling through nerve fibers. This increase of myelin and its effect on neurons has more to do with skill development than had previously been realized.

2) Ignition. If a person is going to invest the amount of time and passion and concentrated, difficult practice that produces high-level skill, that person will have to be deeply motivated. This is the aspect of skill development that Coyle refers to as "ignition". Coyle writes, "Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening." This deep passion is a necessary part of the attainment of great skill.

3) Master coaching. World class talent requires help and feedback and guidance from disciplined, committed, coaches. Think of this as the wise, older sage who can tell the student what he can't tell himself. The development of great skill seems to require the help of people who have the ability to grow talent in others.

Much of the content of "The Talent Code" reminded me of the book, "Talent Is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin, they contain many of the same insights regarding the development of talent. I loved both of these books and they are both worth reading. One of the encouraging and motivating truths that these books reveal is that great skill can be attained by virtually anyone who is willing to sincerely and passionately make the necessary commitment to its development. But, as one of the lines in the book suggests . . . "Better get busy."

Dan Marler
Oak Lawn, IL
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on May 31, 2009
"I'm going to practice it a zillion million times," she said. "I'm going to play super good."

"The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle is a book on how to grow talent. The author is against the wisdom that talent is natural. The book is around the belief that talent come from Myelin. Myelin is the "insulation that wrap these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy." When the certain signal is sent down the nerve system, myelin wraps around the nerve fibre. The thicker the myelin, the better the signal. Thus, "skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals."

The book is divided into three parts of talent growing; 1. Deep Practice 2. Ignition 3. Master Coaching


Part 1: Deep Practice

Chapter 1: The Sweet Spot
This is the first chapter to familiarise us with the deep practice. Coyle wrote about Brazilian football (soccer) and why it is the world's talent hotbed. He had an amazing story of Edwin Link and how his unusual device transformed the training of the Air Force.

Chapter 2: The Deep Practice Cell
This chapter surrounds the idea of myelin and how it might be the holy grail to talent. It is very scientific. To sum it up, "deep practice x 10,000 hours = world-class skill."

Chapter 3: The Brontës, the Z-Boys, and the Renaissance
The author started with the Brontë sisters from England in the 1850s who wrote fantastic children books. He also wrote about the group of skaters by the name of Z-Boys and the guilds during the renaissance and how they produced highly talented people.

Chapter 4: The Three Rules of Deep Practice
This chapter, Coyle gives us three rules of Deep Practicing. 1. Chunk It Up 2. Repeat It 3. Learn to Feel It
Part 2: Ignition

Chapter 5: Prima Cues
It is merely things that get you interested, that excite you and bring you passion. Coyle wrote on how the success of Se Ri Pak, a Korean golfer, had an impact on the next generation of female Korean golfers and how young Russian tennis players wanted to be the new Anna. "If she can do it, why can't I?"

Chapter 6: The Curaçao Experiment
The remote Caribbean island, Curaçao, did a miraculous work at producing lots of talented baseball players because the ignition sparked when an island hero, Andruw Jones, hit a home run. However, the real success of Curaçao is that it keeps motivational fire lit, Doyle tells you how they did it.

Chapter 7: How to Ignite a Hotbed
This chapter is about KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. The story of success of KIPP is like a miracle but the core of it is to constantly ignite the students with just a word, college. No,... "COLLEGE!!"

Part 3: Master Coaching

Chapter 8: The Talent Whisperers
Talent does not come alone, the talented people in their fields need a coach, a mentor, or a master. Coyle wrote about Herman Lamm, the originator and teacher of modern bank-robbing skill! He wrote about Hans Jansen, a cello teacher at Meadowmount Music School in Chicago and how he personalised his teaching method. There is also a wonderful story of John Wooden, a great basketball coach and his amazing coaching techniques.

Chapter 9: The Teaching Blueprint
The author elaborated the four virtues of teaching 1. The Matrix or a task-specific knowledge of the teacher (He wrote a nice story of Linda Septein who taught Jessica Simpson and Beyonce Knowles) 2. Perceptiveness - how to perceive students individually 3. The GPS Reflex - the just-in-time informative directives 4. Theatrical Honesty which is the ability to connect with students.

Chapter 10: Tom Martinez and the $60 Million Bet
This is a chapter about Tom Martinez, a retired junior college American football coach, and his teaching method on a promising young quarterback, JaMarcus Russell.


I would like to compare this book to an ideal book: a book that is easy to understand, distinct, practical, credible, insightful, and provides great reading experience.

Ease of Understanding: 8/10: The book is written in simple language albeit some scientific information. The structure is very simple with the three parts, Deep Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching. Minor drawbacks are some uses of unnecessary ambiguous words such as Matrix, Threatrical Honesty, etc. but they are minor, though.

Distinction: 7/10: There are many books on this subject already and it reminds me of a recent book, "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell and the two have some similarities and some differences. However, The Talent Code is excellent at instilling the knowledge of Myelin making us view talent from a different perspective.

Practicality: 8/10: This book is practical especially in the field on Deep Practice. Daniel Coyle explained nicely on this issue and it is not difficult to implement it to our daily life. Chunk It Up, Repeat, and Learn to Feel It are pretty much straightforward and Deep Practice is the best part of the book because the other two, Ignition and Master Coaching are more difficult to implement.

Credibility: 3/10: Although this is a very good book, it has a major flaw. This book is like a qualitative research. It is deep in the subject and in the examples and stories in the book. However, it lacks generalisation. You might say "That's the way it is" to a story but that might not be the way the rest are. There are some contradictions in the book as well.

For example, in the Chapter 9, the author stated that teaching soccer is different from teaching violin. Teaching soccer must be free flowing because the soccer circuitry is "varied and fast, changing fluidly in response to each obstacle." So, the coach rather lets the players perform. On the other hand, the violinist has to be accurate, precise, and stable. The coach, thus, has to stop and make sure that the circuitry is correct.

The argument is convincing and sensible until we noticed the way the legendary John Wooden, a basketball coach, coached. It's undisputed that basketball is more similar to soccer than violin that it requires fluidity in the game but Coyle wrote that John Wooden constantly issuing informative corrections of movements to players. He might not stop the game but he surely keeps correcting players, not letting them flow. Coyle wrote "[The soccer coach] occasionally smiles ot laughs or says oooooooo for a close play as a fan would. But he doesn't coach in the regular sense of the term, which is to say he doesn't stop the game, teach, praise, critique, or otherwise exert any control whatsoever."

There are some other contradictions or, at least, an overlap. In the chapter 8, Coyle wrote that some coaches coach love or make the children love what they are doing. The quote from the research of Dr. Benjamin Bloom in the chapter is "Perhaps the major quality of these teachers was that they made the initial learning very pleasant and rewarding. Much of the introduction to the field was a playful activity, and the learning at the beginning of the stage was much like a game."

However, in chapter 7, regarding KIPP, the process is not really similar, if not opposite. The new students will be introduced to "discipline" from the first day on everything; how to walk, how to talk, how to sit at a desk, how to look at a teacher or classmate who's speaking, and so on. Students, on the first day, sat on the floor without a desk because "...everything here at KIPP is earned. EVERYTHING is earned. Everything is EARNED." This is a much tougher game than the piano class in Dr. Bloom's research. Likewise, at Spartak, the tennis hotbed in Russia, they did not "play" tennis - they preferred the verb borot'sya - "fight" or "struggle."

There are many minor contradictions and overlaps in this book and make it much less convincing and credible and much of them are in the parts of "Ignition" and "Master Coaching."

Insightful: 7/10: Daniel Coyle had done a very good work with his interviews in the so-called talent hotbeds around the world. Those examples are backed with stories from those involved. However, more researches with less depth would be great to confirm the findings of the deep and insightful ones.

Reading Experience: 6/10: At first, this book is very promising with the first part, "Deep Practice." It gives you intriguing knowledge and very practical methods. However, the book fades out in the later parts I discussed above. While the "Deep Practice" part is very scientific, the other parts are not as solid. The general theme of the whole book is nice but the contradictions can frustrate you.

Overall: 6.5/10: This is a good book with a different perspective on how we look at talent. It will provide you with inspiration and sufficient guidelines to make you more talented in your fields. The Deep Practice part of the book is simply invaluable. The other two parts are not bad but some unclear messages might hold you back.

(I have done this kind of review for some months; if any of you have a comment or suggestion, please do tell)
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on November 14, 2009
(This is a long review because there's a lot to say about this book--none of it good.)

The premise of The Talent Code is straightforward. Myelin is a neurological substance that wraps itself around neurons that are specifically engaged when we learn and practice skills The thicker the sheath of myelin around these neurons, the more hardwired and precise these skills become. The Talent Code examines teaching/learning methods that ostensibly hasten and maximize the process of myelin wrapping thereby radically increasing our ability to acquire, polish and hardwire complex skills quickly and efficiently. This, Coyle claims, is the key to greatness in sports, music and (possibly) academic learning.

Coyle attempts to illustrate and prove this theory with anecdotal rather than scientific evidence (although he often refers to scientific studies on myelin to validate his observations) that he has gleaned from his visits to "hotbeds of talent", as he calls them, around the globe where learning methods that stimulate myelin wrapping are used, producing (in a few cases anyway) inordinate numbers of exceptional athletes and musicians.

It's an interesting premise but Coyle's exploration of it is riddled with errors,fallacies, unproven claims, poor research, puzzling semantics and old ideas and concepts from other sources that Coyle has cobbled together and presented as cutting edge information. These problems are evident right out of the gate when Coyle presents his dumbed down description of the part myelin plays in skill acquisition and shows just how shaky his grasp of his subject is. Yes, myelin is important in the learning process but it's controlled and regulated by the neurochemical BDNF. This compound is regulated by the nucleus basilis, which is the part of the brain responsible for deep concentration and other processes pertaining to skill acquisition. But Coyle mentions neither BDNF nor the nucleus basilis though they are at least as important as myelin in this process. This is like describing the miracle of how letters end up in a mail box without mentioning the postal worker who puts them there or the post office that sorts the mail and sends it to the right address. (I would have given this book two stars just for a decent description of the myelin wrapping process but Coyle can't even get that right.)

After his botched description of the neurological process that is largely the basis of his book, the author moves on to discuss various learning/teaching concepts that he claims maximizes the myelin wrapping process. He presents these concepts as though they're groundbreaking and revolutionary discoveries: secret knowledge he has fetched from obscure sources and shared with us for our edification. Nothing could be further from the truth because while Coyle does his best to present these ideas as new and original by dressing up old concepts with new labels and jargon, they are all familiar and common place to anybody with even a passing knowledge of contemporary teaching and learning methods.

Take the specific practice method that Coyle claims maximizes myelin wrapping. This method involves breaking a skill down into small components and slowly perfecting each component before moving on to the next. Mistakes are focused on and eliminated through repetition. Coyle calls this process "deep practice" and asserts that it's a cutting edge concept known to and practiced by only a privileged few. But this method of practicing has long been common practice among serious musicians and athletes, and not just in his so called "hotbeds of talent"-- most of which have been previously documented in other books and magazine articles. Further, as other reviewers of this book have complained, Coyle never gives a step by step overview of "deep practice" strategies, which are outlined in many other books on the subject. He also never distinguishes between "practicing" and "learning", often using them interchangeably, which gives the impression that he actually believes that they're the same thing.

He goes on to reveal to us that good teachers--whom Coyle refers to as "master coaches" -- focus on a student's individual strengths and weaknesses and balance perceptive, constructive criticism with sincere compliments in their approach to teaching. This is a basic tenet of effective teaching but Coyle treats it like news of the discovery of a second moon orbiting Earth.

Then there's the startling revelation that students who are motivated through a deep interest in a particular subject tend to master that subject more quickly than those are lack motivation. Coyle calls this "ignition" rather than motivation because he is either intent on reinventing the wheel linguistically speaking or renames basic concepts in order to give his premise some semblance of originality Is anybody really surprised to learn that inspired students who jump into their studies with great passion nurtured by good teachers tend to do better than those who are apathetic about their studies? However much Coyle would have us believe otherwise, this observation is about as newsworthy as "dog bites man".

Coyle relies heavily on unsubstantiated conclusions and fallacies to support his premise. For example, he raves about a private school whose main goal to instill ("ignite"?) in its students an obsessive desire to go to college. He spends many pages enthusing about how wonderful and successful this school is in realizing this goal. But wait a minute. How many of these kids have actually reached college? Not one because the program is only a few years old and the kids haven't even reached high school yet. So we have no idea how well it does or doesn't work. But Coyle concludes that it's a wild success and bases his conclusion on...well, actually, he never says. (He also never says how these children, most of whom come from low income homes, are going to pay the tuition for the university of their choice) He's just sure it works like a hot damn: no proof needed beyond his completely subjective enthusiasm for the school and it's approach. Then there's Coyle's claim that one of his alleged "hotbeds of talent", Meadow Mount Music Camp, "produced" Yo Yo Ma and Izhtak Perlman. This is pure rubbish. Both musicians received only an infinitesimal part of their many years of intensive music training at this 7 week camp. And what about the thousands of other musicians who attended MM? Are they as great as Perlman? Coyle tends to avoid addressing questions like this. He also makes much of the amount of myelin found in Einsten's brain but never explains how this relates to his premise. Are we meant to assume that "deep practice" was responsible for Einstein's genius and the large amount of myelin in his brain? True to form, Coyle doesn't say directly but of course we're supposed to infer the connection. In fact, although Coyle implies several times that "deep practice" of academic pursuits can lead to greatness, he steadfastly skirts the issue of how this might be done and offers no evidence that it may be possible. The reader has to take it on blind faith that it's so. The book is full of this sort of transparently fallacious content that is indicative of the worst kind of shabby, shallow pop journalism.

Even Coyle's notion of what constitutes "greatness" is highly questionable. Let's say that his premise is right, that if we spend 10,000 hours of "deep practice" at a particular activity, we will acquire incredible technical skills. (The "10,000 hours of practice" theory which Coyle refers to constantly is the hypothesis of Dr. KA Ericcson whom Coyle doesn't credit in the body of the book although he does in the bibliography.) Let's say we spend these 10,000 hours practicing music and develop phenomenal technical music skills that allow us to perfectly navigate a difficult piece of music at warp speed. Is this greatness? No, it's an impressive feat to be sure. But it isn't greatness and no knowledgeable musician would ever say it was. Great musicians--all great artists for that matter--aren't just about technical skill. They have other crucial aptitudes--creative intelligence, sensitivity, emotional expression, imagination, a penchant for original thought and risk taking, etc.--that don't develop simply by spending endless hours repeating the same movements over and over until mistakes are eliminated and the myelin sheath enveloping their neurons is as thick as Mike Tyson's forearm. What does Coyle make of the fact that many principal violinists in major orchestras have the same (or greater) technical skills as celebrated violin virtuoso Joshua Bell but will never achieve his greatness because they don't possess the aforementioned qualities that move a technically excellent performer into the realm of true greatness, which Bell inhabits? And how would he explain the greatness of artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, Kandinski, Maria Kallas, Bob Dylan, Frank Lloyd Wright or countless other true greats whose brilliance had little or nothing to do with technique and everything to do with original thought and creative expression? That Coyle never addresses this conundrum indicates that the arts in general is a realm far beyond his ken.

For Coyle, fame and fortune are the most important indicators of what is truly great For example, he gushes on endlessly about the brilliance of Jessica Williams' (yes!) vocal teacher who has managed to get several of her students on Pop Idol by enabling them to sound like everybody else in the genre and gain recognition in a world that celebrates and rewards mediocrity and formula. Not that becoming an entrant on Pop Idol is any small feat: it requires some talent and work. It just has nothing to do with greatness. The same could be said for The Talent Code itself, a book that is the literary equivalent of Pop Idol: while some serious work went into writing it, it's derivative (as hard as he tries, Coyle is no Malcolm Gladwell), mediocre and shallow--slickly designed and marketed to sell a prodigious number of units to hopeful consumers who infer from the title that the book contains precepts that will lead them to greatness. Much is promised: little or nothing of substance is actually delivered. Coyle is simply shilling the kind of power of positive thinking pap that has become an enormous American sub-industry by trying to sell the absurd idea that anyone can become another Einstein or Beethoven or Tiger Woods or, heaven forbid, Jessica Williams, if they'll just plunk down 20 bucks for fluff like The Talent Code.

The concepts presented in The Talent Code as revelatory jaw dropping epiphanies are nothing more than facets of a time honored, well worn truism: seek out sincere experienced instructors who believe in you, work hard, practice regularly, patiently and carefully with discipline and passion and as your skills improve, consistently aim higher. You'll unquestionably improve, attain at least some level of mastery in your area and perhaps even excel. It's ever been and always will be thus, (long before myelin was discovered). Will these things alone make you one of the greats? No, because true greatness involves many attributes that can't always be gained through tens (or hundreds) of thousands of hours of practice or instruction from the greatest teachers. But they'll get you a lot further than reading this compilation of second hand, poorly communicated ideas, cliches and unsupported claims marketed as original earth shattering insights and wrapped in sloppily presented scientific semi-truths to give it the facade of legitimacy.

If you're looking for well-written, helpful books on how we learn most effectively and what part the brain plays in the process of skill acquisition ,skip this mess and try The Practicing Mind, The Brain That Changes Itself, The Art of Practicing, The Outliers, This is Your Brain on Music, Practice Made Perfect, Effortless Mastery by the great jazz pianist Kenny Werner who actually presents detailed strategies for effective practicing, This is Your Brain on Music etc. All of these books contain far more insightful perspectives on how we learn most effectively than the Talent Code and none have the arrogance to suggest that they have some simplistic formula or "Code" for attaining greatness like this dud does.
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on May 5, 2009
In spite of the cringe-inducing title,(it seems, after Dan Brown, any hack wanting to get a book published names it The '_____' Code), I mostly liked this book.

Coyle's premise is brilliant in it's simplicity, explore places which generate a disproportionate amount of greatness in arts, athletics or scholarship and figure out what, if anything, they have in common.

His conclusions regarding the importance of specific practice habits, motivational experiences and coaching techniques seem bang-on, and, in hindsight, obvious once you've read about his insights while visiting an assortment of young over-acheivers.

It's a fun read, but he loses me on two points.
Firstly, Coyle is too eager to dismiss the idea of inborn talent.
While he rightly points out that the acquisition of skill is the result of deep practice, the degree of improvement still varies between individuals who share the same practice habits. Something more must be going on.

Secondly in his giddy enthusiasm over myelin building, he potentially paints himself in a corner should we discover that the ability to build myelin has any genetic correlation,(which a recent UCLA study seems to suggest).

In the end, he succeeds in winning me back by making satisfying digs against two of my most despised modern parenting practices, namely, Baby Einstein videos and the tendency to dish out un-earned praise in the name of esteem building.

good read.
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on August 16, 2009
With 34 reviews already written for this book I can only justify writing another if I think I have something to say that hasn't been said by other reviewers.

I have spent most of my adult life teaching, in universities and in industry. Through it all I have always sought better ways to perform the task of getting a concept or a bit of understanding from my head into that of someone else. And I've also often struggled with getting it into my own head, and many times I have struggled with getting from the novice stage to one of mastery of a concept or skill.

Bear with me as I attempt to set the stage for your understanding what I am trying to say. Being a scientist I'll approach the topic from the viewpoint of a scientist. In science research, or the organization of existing research, is usually done either to (a) support (i.e. to "prove") a hypothesis or (b) to disprove a hypothesis. Coyle's approach in "The Talent Code" is the former - he is assembling evidence in an attempt to prove that myelin is the "key" to developing talent. That's fine, but what I am most interested in is that he has assembled a large amount of data concerning development of talent. We don't have to accept his hypothesis to make use of his data.

The myelin sheath effectively makes some neuronal connections more effective than others; that is undeniable. Thus it is unarguably an important factor in speed of transmission. That, along with details of the chemistry of neurotransmitters, neuronal connections, the function of glial cells, and an infinitude of factors unknown collectively make up the "key" to developing talent.

I'm heading toward a strong recommendation of this book. How can I get there when I've just buried the author's theory, the basis for the book, in a pile of other factors that I consider to be of potentially equal or greater importance? The answer is simple. Coyle has assembled a sequence of steps that he argues does lead to maximization of talent. And he backs up that assemblage of steps with enough examples to leave little doubt about the general "correctness" of his argument. Whether one accepts or rejects Coyle's explanation the steps that he argues leads to talent development clearly work.

Who will benefit from reading this book, and why? If you are a teacher or a learner you can benefit greatly in the direct application of his observations to your daily work. If you want or need to develop a talent in yourself Coyle gives a blueprint for how to do that. If you are interested in the "myelin viewpoint" you'll get a reasonably complete view of that. If you want to know the "answer" to the question of the biology/chemistry of how talent is developed, this isn't the place to find it though you'll see one such hypothesis developed in some detail.

In short, I recommend reading the book with the mindset that if you follow the prescription you'll get the desired results. If he's correct in that myelin is the magic ingredient so be it. If he's wrong, you'll still have the results, and that's nothing to sneeze at.
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on May 2, 2009
After recently reading and reviewing another book written by a Ph.D--- Paul Herr, Primal Management: Unraveling the Secrets of Human Nature to Drive High Performance---which deals strictly with employee motivation, I found this book's findings similar to those Herr uncovered.

Herr concluded that employees have five "social appetites" that need to be satisfied by their employers if they are to be happy, motivated, and of course, productive employees.

Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. is more condensed but packs a similar, significant message: (1) Deep practice. This explains why so few of us are really very good at golf. Our practice is shallow and sporadic, and what we're practicing is for the most part, our mistakes; so we stay at a 15 handicap, or worse, for life.

Of course, the pros, like Vijay Singh, for example, practice (the deep approach) so much it makes you think he's trying to make a living at being a PGA professional or something. He must have so much myelin running through his veins, he'd experience serious withdrawl symptoms if he was forced to go bowling for a few hours.

(2) The ingition, which is simply motivation, may seem mysterious, but I think it's sparked by having a positive role model in your life, or in the world of business, having a boss who treats you with respect and dignity. Of course, with a guy like Tiger Woods, for example, his ignition switch is wired in a way that is very mysterious, indeed. How else could a guy accomplish so much, so quickly, in a sport filled with great players? And even win the US Open in a playoff, with a broken leg? Now that's an ignition switch very few possess.

(3) Mentor coaching---Even a professional, like Tiger, who is clearly on that highest possible level of performance, is constantly striving for perfection; and he keeps seeking the advice of the Butch Harmons of the world; geniuses who can somehow find the slightest flaw in a superior player and convey the necessary adjustment to that player in a manner that doesn't mince words nor bruise egos; that's really tough to do, but it explains why Tiger is so great. He has the intelligence and humility to realize even he can't always figure things out on his own.

I'm sure we've all met a lot of people in our lives who are very good at what they do, but perhaps think they're a little better at it than actual reality. They never seek mentoring because they don't think they need it; unfortunately, most of them do need mentoring.

This explains why true greatness is so rare. Not only do "the great ones" have to be exceptionally proficient at what they do, there must be relevence in their abilities; to attain "relevent greatness" in a world filled with self-absorbed people who are only "great" at getting in the way; that's the tricky part!

Coyle's work in defining "the talent code", and presenting it in such a concise, straightforward manner makes it, not surprisingly, a great book.
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on July 3, 2009
This book by Daniel Coyle addresses the fundamentally important topic of how we can become better skilled in any field of endeavor (intellectual, artistic, athletic, etc.). The ideas presented in the book are similar to other recent books on the subject, such as Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell and especially Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin (which I think is actually better than Coyle's book).

The book is written in a journalistic style and has lots of stories whose ideas tend to be somewhat repetitive, so the book could be greatly compressed. However, the stories are at least entertaining, and the book is still a relatively quick read, so I guess I didn't really mind the stories too much, although I still prefer a more systematic and streamlined presentation. Here are the key points from the book:

1. Becoming really good at something is a matter of skill, which is a matter of practice. Inborn talent might help, and a basic minimum level of talent might even be a prerequisite, but practice is the more important factor.

2. Becoming really good almost always requires a LOT of practice. Some researchers suggest 10,000 hours of practice as a general benchmark to attain expert level of skill (which takes about a decade at 20 hours per week).

3. Practicing up to several hours per day is effective. When you try to practice more than that each day, returns diminish.

4. Effective practice needs to be "deep" in the sense of involving a high level of focus and working at or slightly beyond the limits of your current ability. In other words, you have to continually stretch yourself. One way to do this is to spend part of your practice time in situations similar to, but more difficult than, the actual performance situation (eg, using flight simulators to practice flying in extreme weather and with aircraft failures). By contrast, practicing what you're already good at won't help much; you'll just stay that good without getting better, or you will improve very slowly.

5. During practice, you should aim for perfection and should be very alert to errors. Further practice should then work to correct those errors, going in slow motion and breaking the task into modules if necessary, and then speeding up and connecting the modules as the errors diminish.

6. Coaching can be a huge help. A skilled coach will know how to connect personally with you, spot errors, and offer targeted advice to help correct those errors, all on an individualized basis (by contrast, "one size fits all" coaching will be suboptimal and maybe even detrimental).

7. Deep practice isn't easy, and therefore often isn't fun, so you need strong motivation to do it. Many sources can provide such motivation, such as compelling role models. Committment to long-term goals can be an especially powerful motivator. And practicing in a dilapidated environment can also highlight the difference between where you are and where you would like to eventually be, thus fueling motivation.

8. If you stop practicing, your skill declines (exponential decay?). In other words, "use it or lose it" is true. But if you continue practicing effectively, your skill can continue increasing, even into the later years of your life (especially for non-athletic pursuits).

In his book, Gladwell adds (I think correctly) that luck can also be a large factor in achieving outlier-level success. Such an emphasis on luck might be viewed as contradicting Coyle's (and Colvin's) thesis, but I don't think that's the case, especially since luck is itself a factor in discovering the right way to practice, finding a good coach, becoming inspired, etc.

Coyle makes a big deal about neuron myelination as being the biological basis of his ideas, but I think the role of myelination is superfluous because (a) there's surely a lot more going on than just myelination, (b) we don't really need to know the biological mechanism(s) to apply the principles in practice, and (c) in this case, knowledge of the purported mechanism doesn't add much value anyway.

Overall, I do think this is a good book on a very important and practical topic, so I certainly recommend it, but be sure to check out the books by Colvin and Gladwell also.
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In recent years, there have been several books and even more articles written in response to research conducted by Anders Ericsson in these subject areas: the structure and acquisition of expert performance, experts' ability to expand working memory and access to long-term memory with training, and use of Protocol analysis as a rigorous methodology for eliciting verbal reports of thought sequences as a valid source of data on thinking. These books include Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle gratefully acknowledges the importance of Ericsson's research, agreeing with Colvin and Gladwell that greatness isn't born; rather, it is developed by a combination of luck (i.e. being "given" opportunities); ignition (i.e. self-motivation activated by one or more "primal cues"), what Coyle calls "deep practice" (i.e. 10, 000 hours of focused and disciplined repetition, requiring an energetic and passionate commitment), and master coaching provided by "talent whisperers" who "possess vast, deep frameworks of knowledge, which they apply to the steady, incremental work of growing skill circuits, which they ultimately don't control."

At one point in his narrative (Page 72), Coyle declares, "We are myelin beings." OK, but so what? When tapping into a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted practice builds skills, we create entry to "a zone of accelerated learning that, while it can't quite be bottled, can be accessed by those who know how. In short, they're cracked the talent code." What about myelin? According to Dr. George Bartzokis, professor of neurology at U.C.L.A., it is "the key to talking, reading, learning skills, being human." It is a neural insulator that, Coyle claims, some neurologists now consider to be "the holy grail" of skill acquisition because every human skill "is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse - basically a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin's vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits in the right way - when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note - our myelin responds by wrapping layers around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become." Better yet, "we are all born with the opportunity to become, as Mr. Myelin [viewed as broadband] likes to put it, lords of our own Internet. The trick is to figure out how to do that."

As Coyle's uncommonly detailed "Notes on Sources" on Pages 223-232 indicate, he consulted the results of dozens of different surveys. Moreover, he seems to have read almost all available books and articles in which those who conducted the research share their insights. It should be noted that he also traveled extensively, conducted dozens of interviews, and engaged in hundreds of on-site conversations, thereby supplementing others' research data with his own first-hand observations. For example, he visited inner-city schools involved in the Knowledge Is Power Program (aka KIPP) and spoke at length with the program's co-founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. When the program was launched, most of the students ranked far below average and only 53% of them passed the state English and math tests. At the end of the first year, 90% of them passed.

Coyle provides a rigorous and thorough analysis of KIPP in Chapter 7. Here is a brief excerpt: "One way to look at KIPP is as a unique tale of goodhearted underdogs who caught lightning in a bottle. If that were all it was, our interest in the story would end now. The other way to look at it, however, is an example of pure ignition: the art and science of creating a talent hotbed [in each school, in each class, and in each student's mind] from the ground up, without the assistance of a World Series homer or another magical breakthrough. That's why it's useful to look under this remarkable jalopy to see what makes it go." No gimmicks and no shortcuts. Currently, there are 66 KIPP public schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia enrolling more than 16,000 students. Across the KIPP network, 65 of the existing 66 schools are charter schools. The majority of KIPP schools (more than 85 percent) are middle schools designed to serve fifth through eighth grade students. The remaining schools include seven high schools, six pre-kindergarten/elementary schools, and one pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school.

As Coyle suggests, "it's time to rewrite the maxim that practice makes perfect. The truth is, practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect. And myerlin operates by a few fundamental principles" that explain where extraordinary talent (defined as "the possession of repeatable skills that don't depend on physical size") comes from and how it can be developed. Although it is possible to "overlay research such as Ericsson's with the new myelin science to formulate a universal theory of skill" (i.e. deep practice X 10,000 hours = world-class skill), it is important to keep in mind that "the truth is more complicated than that." I am grateful to Daniel Coyle for providing such an entertaining as well as informative book, one that has increased substantially my understanding of how to "grow" talent. His is a brilliant achievement.
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on March 4, 2010
With its inspiring dust jacket message -- "Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how." -- Coyle's book rounds out the egalitarian excellence trilogy, taking a refreshing new slant on ground already covered by Geoff Colvin ("Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else") and Malcolm Gladwell ("Outliers: The Story of Success").

Colvin's basic message from "Talent is Overrated" is as follows: Greatness comes from something called deep practice, which amounts to working your butt off and enduring insane doses of psychological pain (because deep practice is hard and taxing and it hurts).

Gladwell's message from "Outliers" was even more succinct (or clichéd, depending on one's point of view): All greatness pretty much boils down to the 10,000 hour rule. If you want to be world class at something, put 10,000 hours into it. Period. Child prodigies like Mozart, we are told, merely got a head start on this onerous requirement.

Daniel Coyle puts a uniquely scientific spin on the pursuit of excellence, focusing on the neuro-physical essence of skill formation and boiling it down to a strange waxy substance called myelin.

"We are myelin beings," Coyle intones with a sort of mystic reverence. Myelin is the speed-enhancing stuff that wraps the signal-generating nerve fibers in our brains, turning slow, sluggish 56K modem connections into the mental equivalent of fiber-optic cables.

"Skill is a cellular insulation [i.e. myelin] that wraps neural circuits," Coyle writes, "and that grows in response to certain signals."

With this wonky definition in tow, Coyle travels the world in search of "Chicken-wire Harvards" -- hotbeds of excellence where unlikely concentrations of talent spring up, usually in sparse surroundings. His examples range from Brazilian soccer players to Curacao baseball kids to cello players in upstate New York.

At a fairly compact 220 pages (give or take), the book is organized into three main sections: Deep Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching.

"Deep Practice" is all about the means of "earning myelin," i.e. building skill, as effectively and rapidly as possible. The essence of deep practice is a sort of intensely focused start-stop observation and experimentation, in which the practitioner is constantly making mistakes and looking to correct them one by one. It is not so much about speed as relentless repetition in the pursuit of small, incremental improvements... pushing the edge of the envelope inch by relentless inch. There is even a universal facial expression: As Coyle describes it, deep practicing kids all over the world bear uncanny resemblance to a squinty-eyed Clint Eastwood.

The section on "Ignition" is all about the critical factor of motivation -- the source of passion and desire that keeps the fire burning. Without ignition, i.e. the presence of that constant burning fire, the energy and mental drive to continue on in the grueling path of deep practice is not there.

"Master Coaching" focuses on the methods of top instructors and teachers -- the older, wiser souls who are great at helping others become great. Surprisingly, the profile of the master coach is not so much aggressive and enthusiastic as focused, personalized and low key. Coyle's investigation reveals the perhaps surprising truth that master coaching, in its essence, is far more cerebral than emotional. There is indeed an emotional component to it, but the emotion is strategic and applied with calculated purpose. Everything the master coach does, down to the slightest interaction, is meant to maximize skill transfer. In a way it comes down to a sort of brute force mathematics: The greater the number of meaningful small adjustments a coach can pack into a tight time space, the faster the student learns (and thus the faster the myelin forms). This idea of coach as rapid-fire iteration machine is eye opening.

As for personal takeaways, Coyle's book has inspired me to take even more deliberate strides towards excellence -- to sort of hire myself on as my own Master Coach. The practical application of this involves more routinely stepping outside myself... evaluating a performance or a piece of work from a distance... recording detailed critiques in a journal or personal recorder... and looking for as many rapid-fire points of incremental improvement as possible before moving on to the next project.

The book's payoff was greater than just that, though, in fostering more commitment to learning processes I had already embraced intuitively. I was delighted to discover the concept of "automaticity," for example, as this term (which I had not heard before, in spite of having read a number of brain books) synched up with a phrase of my own invention. Automation and Documentation, or "autodoc," is the self-styled terminology I had previously used to describe the process of articulating and unpacking information into the subconscious mind, such that commonly executed skill routines gradually become automatic. I did not realize there was already a term in the field for this.

One question "The Talent Code" brings to mind is this: What does it mean for the human race now that we are getting so much better at skill development, i.e. figuring out what deep practice really is (and how to do it)? Are we going to see more prodigies, and ever greater levels of achievement, now that a new generation of kids -- and more importantly their doting parents -- are getting a clearer sense of where "talent" actually comes from and what it's really all about?

On the one hand, you have inspiring books like this one, complete with the egalitarian excellence battle cry and the nascent promise of rapidly spreading competence. We are finally learning to maximize human potential, huzzah! On the other hand you have all these laments -- which seem to be growing at about the same rate as video game popularity -- about how the mind is being destroyed by Xbox and Playstation, mindless Google and Youtube searches, Facebook friends and Twitter feeds, cell phone texts and so on... all these never-ending distractions that are turning our collective brains into ooze.

As the "Talent Code" revolution takes hold of a motivated minority -- while passing the majority by -- could we be headed into a society with an even greater divide between haves and have nots than before? A world where talent-enabled kids find themselves even more advantaged than before, competing against a mass of bogged down lumpen content to sink into the pleasant quicksand of sugary information stimuli? In other words, will we have "myelin megachievers" stomping around like godzillas amidst slack-jawed dodos? Or is that a bit much?
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on August 24, 2009
Daniel Coyle sets out in this book to make a simple and important point: greatness isn't born, its grown. Through a wealth of examples drawn from "talent hotbeds" throughout the world, he builds a powerful case for this simple assertion. His thesis is well supported, and truly inspiring. He lets us know that, if we are willing to put in the work, most of us can get really, really good at just about anything.

The book is packed with gems: a study that shows that self-discipline is a better predictor of academic success than is IQ; tidbits from the training techniques used at the tiny Spartak tennis academy in Moscow that has turned out as many top 20 womens players in the last decade as the entire United States; and insight into the kinds of practice that build skill fast. It is an inspiring, engaging book, and a very fast read.

At the same time, the book falls a bit short on delivering the last claim in the title: "Here's How." While there is a lot of information here about practice techniques, details are sparse and the examples are fairly specific to particular schools and disciplines. At the same time, the general principles that Coyle derives are so broad as to be difficult to apply to one's own training. Will you get some real insight into how to improve your own practice or how to coach others? Yes, definitely. But it is a long, long way from being a how-to guide. In fact, given what Coyle writes the best answer to "how" might just be "get a good coach."

I highly recommend the book for what it is: an inspiring, engaging essay on the idea that talent is mostly a function of what you do and have done, not your DNA. To really figure out how to apply these ideas to cultivate greatness in your own endeavors, however, you will need to go far beyond this excellent book.
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